This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the RCAF Women’s Division. Did you know that the RCAF was the first service to recruit women during WWII? And that it was the last to release them? And the first to recreate its women’t organization during the post war period?
The Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division was a non-combatant element of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) which was active during the Second World War. The Women’s Division’s original role was to replace male air force personnel so that they would be available for combat-related duties. First called the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF), the name changed to Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division in February 1942. Women’s Division personnel were commonly known as WDs. By the end of the war, it totalled approximately 17,000 members.
Initially, WD members received only two-thirds the pay of their male counterparts, though this was increased to four-fifths in mid-1943. They were allowed to be married, but could not have dependent children or, in fact, any dependents; as a result, they weren’t eligible for a dependent’s allowance. They had their own rank structure that paralleled the male structure; for instance, leading aircraftwoman instead of leading aircraftman and wing officer instead of wing commander.
The RCAF didn’t train their female recruits to be flying instructors or combatants (note that the division’s slogan was “We serve that men may fly”). They were initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles. However, as the war continued, women would also work in other positions like parachute riggers and laboratory assistants, and also in male-dominated trades such as electrical and mechanical. Taught at many locations across Canada, the WDs learned other trades such as meteorology, food preparation, air traffic control, photo interpretation, photography, typing, administration, wireless operations, and police work. Many RCAF-WD members were sent to Great Britain to serve with Canadian squadrons and headquarters there.
Most WDs lived in barracks. Those who worked at Air Force Headquarters in Ottawa lived in a barrack block that housed up to 800 airwomen. The barracks weren’t well insulated. During winter, some slept with their uniforms in order to keep warm; others insulated their mattresses with newspapers. In locations such as cities where government housing was not available, personnel would live in private accommodations and receive an allowance to pay for room, board, and transportation.
Baseball, basketball and hockey were popular. Women had their own team when there was enough of them on a base; otherwise they’d join the men’s team. Depending on station facilities, other activities included golfing, horseback riding, track and field, skiing, swimming, tennis and skating. Annual summer sports day were arranged to promote “healthy minds in healthy bodies”. Bases often organized dances, musical concerts, talent shows and showed films.
The WD’s uniform was based on the British WAAF uniform. The kit consisted of a blue-grey (“air force blue”) tunic and skirt, blue shirt, black necktie, greatcoat, rain coat, black shoes, navy blue cardigan, blue smock overshoes lisle grey stockings, gloves, khaki coveralls, grey shorts, tee shirt summer dress, rank badges and a cap with a pleated crown. A battle dress uniform was issued to those who would be exposed to bad weather. In some instances, lined ski pants, parka and winter cap with ear flaps were issued. Airwomen who served outside Canada wore a “Canada” flash on the shoulders.
The uniform changed somewhat in 1943. The new uniform, which was meant to be primarily worn off the stations, added a pleat to the greatcoat and the skirt was changed to a six-gore pattern. The pleated tunic pockets were replaced with flat patch pockets below and false pockets above, and the belt became detachable. A blue leatherette shoulder bag was added. The cap was replaced with one with a kepi-style with a deep visor and higher stiffened front.
The summer uniform consisted of a blue short-sleeved cotton dress with brass buttons. This was eventually replaced with a light khaki uniform based on the new blue (winter) uniform.
Married women began to be demobilized in late 1944, and the last member was discharged by March 1947. RCAF nurses, however, continued to serve.
In 1951, enrolment of women into the RCAF was again authorized.